Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek TV series turns 50 this year.
Along with that milestone, there will doubtless be a few geektastic Trekkie conventions on the schedule, and the usual suspects will be cashing in on the legacy of a man who, at heart, was against money.
How do we know that Gene Roddenberry considered money a vestige of humanity’s lizard brain instinct, to be discarded as we evolved?
P. Gardner Goldsmith, a libertarian who writes fiction on the side, in an article on the Foundation for Economic Education website, recalls a pitch session for a story he was trying to sell the producers of one of the more recent Star Trek spin-offs.
“I happened to offer a story outline that involved a Sting-like scheme by the main characters to retrieve a sizeable amount of stolen money,” writes Goldsmith. “But as I told the story, the producer held up a hand and informed me that I needn’t go any further.”
Puzzled as to why Goldsmith was being stopped mid-pitch, the producer replied, “Gene stipulated before he died that there was to be no money in the Federation,” adding, “He believed that by the 23rd century, mankind would have evolved past the need for money.”
“The producer looked at me and said, ‘It was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. You have no idea how much of a headache that rule has been,'” writes Goldsmith.
Even with Roddenberry’s rejection of all the potential heist and robbery plot lines that the writers could have dreamed up, it is amazing how much swashbuckling got done in the Star Trek universe despite the absence of money, especially under the swaggering captaincy of James T. Kirk.
The standard Vulcan farewell, uttered multiple times by Spock, was “Live long and prosper.”
But in the world of Star Trek, what exactly does it mean to be “prosperous” if money is a thing of the distant past? Can it be that there are other ways of “prospering” than having a decently sized number in your bank account?
In the Star Trek version of reality, the mere mention of a “bank account” would be regarded as a hopelessly barbaric curio, like using leeches to cure disease.
On Sunday June 5, the people of Switzerland will be voting on a proposal to change to the wording of the country’s constitution in a way that would “guarantee the introduction of an unconditional basic income”, thus ensuring “a humane existence and participation in public life for the whole population”.
“Gene stipulated before he died that there was to be no money in the Federation. He believed that by the 23rd century, mankind would have evolved past the need for money.”
A recent poll conducted by Dalia Research found that two-thirds of respondents, from a total of 10,000 people interviewed in 21 languages from all 28 EU member states, would vote in favour of an unconditional basic income.
A poll conducted in March by Forum Research found that 41% of Ontarians support the idea of a basic income “to replace social assistance and other provincial support payments”.
“This appears to be an idea whose appeal is growing. We have polled a similar question federally in 2012, and just one quarter approved,” said Forum Research President, Dr. Lorne Bozinoff.
That support fluctuates fairly predictably depending on the political party affiliation of respondents, but it has surprisingly high traction among young respondents.
This is where things get weird.
Even Bernie Sanders, who has said that he believes that the idea of a universal basic income merits further study, has stopped short of outright endorsing it, preferring instead to fight for a $15 minimum wage.
But the idea of universal basic income has become almost fashionable in Silicon Valley libertarian circles.
Basically, the argument runs, eliminate social services and all of the government bureaucracy that surrounds it and just cut everyone a cheque.
Why pay civil servants to be gatekeepers, sitting in offices all day humiliating the poorest of the poor? Cut out the middleman, give people money directly, and let 10 million flowers bloom.
Ex-Conservative Senator Hugh Segal is a big fan of the idea.
And capital “L” liberals are beginning to rail against some of the more techno-utopian fantasy elements of the scheme.
The rationale for universal basic income is straightforward enough, both from the perspective of the individual and of the state.
If you believe that each person should be working towards fulfilling their human potential, rather than running like a hamster in a wheel trying to stay on top of rent and bills and merely staying alive, then it should follow that a society that eliminates the need for people to worry about covering amenities should also reap the explosion of innovation, creativity and prosperity that ought to flow from the removal of that barrier.
And from the state perspective, eliminating “social services” and replacing it with a universal floor for income makes sense, theoretically at least, presuming that the uptick in productivity that should result from people doing what they want to do, instead of wasting their lives hustling for cash each day, would produce a corresponding economic uptick.
The case against paying everyone for basically just being alive is also pretty obvious, and comes out of a distinctly Scrooge-like, 19th century morality. “Why should I bust my hump all day long so that this bunch of nothing-burger stoners can play video games, collect pogey and eat Cheetos?”
It’s usually pitted that way, as a cartoonish self-made Kevin O’Leary type railing against “losers”, rather than the prospect of unleashing the nascent potential of a person, with unlimited ambition but limited prospects, who is being held back by the very hamster-in-a-wheel system that prevents them from moving up and creating the next iPhone or Google.
In the fiscal year ending March 2007, total social services spending in Canada amounted to $172.4 billion, compared with $79.5 billion in 1989.
Over roughly that same period, social spending as a percentage of GDP barely moved, from 17.6% in 1990 to 18.5% in 2009 and back down to 17% again in 2014.
“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.” – Harry Lime in “The Third Man”
Proponents of the Swiss referendum are suggesting a basic monthly income of 2,500 Swiss francs (approximately C$3,310) for adults and 625 Swiss francs for children, which sounds like a lot until you consider that the high cost of living in Switzerland means that that amount will just about cover rent, plus a little extra, which means that most people would probably still opt to have jobs to pay for a life above and beyond just getting by.
The default ethos of “self-reliance” and thrift which most Canadians take to be the normal, common-sense version of reality is more the expression of the Protestant work ethic that rode along on the boat with our ancestors, having more to do with the Puritan worldview and its profound sense of shame over any worldly enjoyment, actively resenting the notion that, God forbid, anyone should actually enjoy themselves while they’re alive.
Think of the Swiss. What comes to mind? Odds are you can’t think of anything. Skiing? Chocolate? Staying clear of the war?
Orson Welles summed up the Swiss contribution to civilization pretty nicely in the 1949 film “The Third Man”, in a monologue that he more or less improvised, much to the chagrin of the film’s screenwriter.
Playing a profiteer who makes a fortune condemning thousands of innocent people to death through the sale of diluted penicillin, Welles makes the case that true innovation and greatness typically rises from humanity’s baser, selfish instincts.
“You know what the fellow said,” says Welles as Harry Lime, “in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly.”
Welles is playing devil’s advocate here, being a New Deal Democrat in real life and a direct beneficiary of the Federal Theatre Project, funded through the Works Progress Administration delivered by the Roosevelt presidency during the Depression, which paid for Welles to found the Mercury Theatre and then led to his subsequent film career.
Even if the Swiss say “Nein, danke” this Sunday to universal basic income, both Finland and the Dutch city of Utrecht will be implementing experiments in basic income in 2017.
How those play out will provide some real-world evidence for whether such schemes are workable or destined to remain the stuff of science fiction.